With the right tortilla, be it corn or flour, anything tastes better. Take last night's leftover meatloaf--please--it was awful. But swaddle it in a warm soft tortilla blanket that is fresh off the griddle, then gently cover the meatloaf with some guac and salsa and voilà, you have a heavenly treat...that is muy fantástico.
It's hard to imagine a world without tortillas, but tortillas are a relative newcomer to Planet Earth. Even though corn (maize) has been around since 7500 B.C. (or B.C.E.), tortillas only came on the scene around 500 A.D. Once discovered, tortillas quickly became a staple as well as a passion for many.
Although, there are a variety of tortillas with regional variations like Panama's deep fried cornmeal disk that is smallish at 2–3 inches in diameter; or El Salvador's thicker and larger tortillas (about three times larger in diameter)--and Honduras and Costa Rica tortillas made from wheat flour-we limited our tasting to the traditional Mexican corn tortilla made from masa that is either hand-molded or molded using a tortilla press then baked on a hot griddle.
When it comes to tortillas, Chicago is an amazing place to be with so many choices. According to world renown Chicago chef Rick Bayless (Topolobampo, Frontera Grill and others), "Chicago has more taquerias than Mexico City."
If you are looking for the best tortillas in Chicago, a good spot to start and maybe even end is the Lower West Side of the city. The area, just minutes from downtown Chicago, greets visitors with a big "Bienvenidos" on a terra cotta gateway at 26th Street. From there you enter another world--a magical and colorful place filled with Mexican supermarkets, taquerias, food carts, beautiful murals, panaderías (bakeries), vendors hawking churros and tamales along with other authentic Mexican street food and merchandise.
Two neighborhoods, Pilsen and Little Village, comprise the area that some call Chicago's "Little Mexico". Pilsen is bordered on the south and east by the Chicago River and on the north and west by the Burlington Northern Railroad tracks. Little Village is bordered by the Stevenson Expressway to the south, Cermak Road to the north, Western Avenue to the east, and Cicero Avenue to the west.
Even though it would have been easy to limit our search for the best tortillas to this area, it would have been unfair as there are many enclaves both inside and outside the city with outstanding Mexican fare.
On our quest for the best, we looked at the quality of the tortilla and stopped there--not letting ourselves be influenced by other offerings on the menu--after all, it is all about the tortilla. Our tortilla had to be fresh, doughy, served hot to warm, soft, puffy with a melt in your mouth texture that could serve as a blank canvas for whatever was added or enjoyed on its own. In addition, our tortilla had to work for a variety of Mexican guises including burritos, chimichangas, quesadillas, and soft tacos.
After eating our way around Chicagoland, we picked La Casa de Samuel as numero uno for the aforementioned qualities.
La Casa de Samuel is a Mexican restaurant located in the colorful Little Village neighborhood at 2834 West Cermak.( 773) 376 7474. Their tortillas play a starring role at the restaurant with the griddle located front and center. The griddle, which is in the front window for all to see, is constantly "manned" by a rotating team of three female tortilla makers turning out a steady stream of hot, soft delectable, authentic, handmade corn tortillas.
The tortillas are good by themselves or perfect as a wrap for any of their unique menu items including: baby eels, rattle snake, alligator, quail, goat, bull's testicles, wild boar (jabalí), and other traditional and non-traditional offerings. My favorite, the Huevos A La Mexicana (scrambled eggs with onions), provides a simple delicious filling that lets the tortilla dominate. Of course you can't go wrong with the Cecina de Venado (cured thin slices of venison), a signature dishes at La Casa de Samuel, or the many other authentic dishes offfered.
Although La Casa de Samuel is our pick, the perfect tortilla is elusive. There are new places popping up every day along with carts and food trucks providing more food for thought. Since it is impossible to try them all, we would love your "feedback". Below are some additional places you may want to check out.
Mixteco Grill. 1601 W. Montrose Ave. This unassuming BYOB, in a residential neighborhood at the corner of Ashland and Montrose, is easy to miss if you're not looking for it. Chef Chef-owner Raul Arreola, who worked under Rick Bayless at Frontera Grill, has created a gem of a restaurant with food from the Oaxacan region of Mexico. Mixteco is known to have some of the best moles in the city. Of course, we came to check the tortillas and they didn't disappoint with melt in your mouth goodness emanating from their handmade corn (and flour) tortillas. Michelin agrees having named Mixteco Grill a Bib Gourmand winner for its value and quality of food in their prestigious 2013 Chicago Michelin Guide.
La Quebrada, 4859 W Roosevelt Rd. The fresh homemade tortillas are sure to please at this Mexican eatery featuring the cuisine of Guerrero.
La Cecina, 1934 W. 47th St. (773) 927 9444. La Cecina is the spot to go in the Back of the Woods' hood for their homestyle Mexican food.
El Milagro, 3050 W. 26th St. and other locations. (773) 579-6120. Since 1950, El Milagro has been making their own tortillas in the factory next to their taqueria. Their tortillas are also sold at many supermarkets.
¡Salpicón! 1252 N. Wells St. (312) 988-7811, This Old Town restaurant features contemporary Mexican cuisine in an inviting atmosphere.
Los Comales Taqueria 1544 West 18th Street. A Mexican Taqueria that serves tasty and inexpensive Mexican fast food.
La Pasadita 1140 N. Ashland Ave. (773) 278-0384. Family owned and operated since 1976, La Pasadita now has three restaurants on the 1100 block of Ashland. They are known for some the best tacos in town.
Nuevo Léon 1515 W. 18th St. (312) 421-1517. Nuevo Leon is, perhaps, the best known Mexican restaurant in Pilsen. The popular spot, located along the bustling 18th Street strip, serves a variety of authentic Mexican dishes accompanied by handmade flour tortillas. The restaurant is a little pricier than many others in Pilsen but it is still very affordable.
Topolobampo 445 N. Clark St. (312) 661-1434. Rick Bayless' Topolo is the place to go for upscale Mexican cuisine. Topolo is the quiet, sleek, classy sister to Rick's original Frontera Grill which sits next door sharing the same front door and bar. Indulge in an elegant Mexican fantasy menu of incomparable, authentic, regional flavors. Remember to plan ahead--it is recommend that you make reservations 8 to 10 weeks in advance--and also be prepared for sticker shock at this pricy spot.
Frontera Grill, 445 N. Clark St., You won't be disappointed at this more casual and less pricy sibling to Topopo. The creative and seasonal menu is sure to please as it has been doing for many years. With their limited reservation policy--be prepared to wait, especially on busy weekend evenings.
Mexique, 1529 W. Chicago Ave., (312) 850-0288. French inspired Mexican food is the speciality here with Chef Carlos Gaytan creating an outstanding menu that earned Mexique its first one star Michelin distinction this year--a significant culinary accomplishment for any restaurant anywhere. Their warm Mexican tortillas and crispy corn tortillas are delightful, as is their special taco menu. In addition to the tortillas except some creative wraps including banana leaves.
Chicago's Rogers Park and Edgewood neighborhoods are home to many Hispanic establishments, especially along Clark St. between Touhy and Pratt. You may want to plan your own "tortilla crawl" where you can experience a wide variety of Mexican eateries, bakeries and grocery stores.
North: If you live or are heading north of the city, there is a small chain of Mexican restaurants called Tacos el Norte that you may want to check out. The fast food casual taquerias have outposts in Highwood, Waukegan, Libertyville, Round Lake Beach, Lake Zurich, Palatine, Buffalo Grove and other locations. The restaurants are owned individually by siblings who run them independently--thus the menus, quality, portions and prices vary.
La Casa de Isaac, 431 Temple Ave. La Casa de Isaac in Highland Park is a Kosher Mexican spot that features traditional Mexican dishes plus some Kosher influenced choices including King David's Quesadillas (with lox, cream cheese and onions).
West: New Rebozo, formerly known as El Rebozo, has been an Oak Park staple for over 20 years. The restaurant is known for its' unique moles and their popular Chef Paco who is loved by his customers--many of whom are regulars. The restaurant is a little pricey but you won't be disappointed. Madison just east of Harlem, 1116 Madison Street, Oak Park.